Go Watch “The Cartel” if you haven’t seen it!

It’s available for free on Hulu. It’s a 1.5 hour documentary on public education in New Jersey, but it’s mostly applicable to any American, anywhere, who cares about public education. It’s politically balanced – lots of Democrats and Republicans are shown on screen. It will make you sad and probably infuriate you, but if you finish it wiser than you began it, it will be worth it. It will make you especially angry at teachers unions.

Why was this film on my mind? Because, today I got my first newsletter from the Michigan Education Association. I’m not a member of the MEA, but I am forced to sort of pay them off as a condition of employment, as some court somewhere has ruled that even if I don’t wish to be a member, they do provide some non-political services for me (wage negotiation, etc.), and can therefore charge me for those services. Well, OK. Anyways, I get their newsletter.

The last article in the newsletter was, actually, not such a bad article about the MEA collecting supplies for some teachers in need in Benton Harbor. But the subtitle was “It’s about choosing kids over CEOs” and the article attacked state government for reducing school funding (supposedly to give CEOs a tax break). Of course my immediate thought was “an even bigger threat to education than CEOs? The MEA.” But “The Cartel” makes several great and relevant points here.

1. Perhaps most importantly, the US already spends more per pupil on education than any other western nation, and doesn’t get anything like the results you might expect for it. Basically, our public education system is terrible – hardly news, I know. Furthermore, education spending per pupil, inflation-adjusted, has roughly tripled over the last 30 years, while test scores have not budged at all. Therefore if anyone tells you that the way to improve education is to throw more money at it, or suggests that removing money would be catastrophic, you should give them a very strange look indeed.

But why does all this money accomplish so little? In New Jersey only about 10% of education spending actually goes to teacher salaries – the rest is spent on exceptionally well-payed administrators, custodians, facilities, etc. Most money marked for education doesn’t end up being spent on education, in other words. I want to make that clear, because we personally use the website DonorsChoose.org to donate money to classrooms – used well, money can make a difference. But it often isn’t.

2. The unions themselves are a big part of the problem. They insist on equal treatment for all teachers regardless of teaching quality – they fight against bonuses for stupendous teachers and insure that it is extremely difficult and expensive for a district to fire a bad teacher. (In New Jersey, only 0.03%! of tenured teachers get removed. One official interviewed suggested that perhaps 30% should be.) Union rules insisting all teachers work the same amount of time have the effect of prohibiting teachers who want to start after-school programs, even without pay, from doing it. And finally, unions resist the introduction of any sort of competition that might improve quality – specifically, by resisting the establishment of voucher programs and charter schools.

Believe me, those are just summary statements – spend the time to watch the film and get details. (And I would love to hear your comments on it, good or bad.)

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